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In terms of lunch-hour possibilities, 41st Street is a great place to make a bank withdrawal, but not such a great place to spend same on grub. Not that there aren't eateries dotted here and there among the ATM machines. It's just that almost none are appealing; in this neighborhood religious dietary laws are prioritized above taste. Doctor friends affiliated with nearby hospitals Mt. Sinai and Miami Heart have been moaning to me for years about the trials of existing on mediocre bagels.
Which is why I had to stop a Haitian RN I know only slightly when she passed me hustling into Sinai recently with a huge steaming Styrofoam tray broadcasting major eau de onions and peppers.
"Ada's," she said. "Latin. Cheap. Right off Alton."
No way, said my doc friends. Never heard of it -- and they'd been looking for such a place for years.
But the tiny luncheonette does indeed exist, and has since 1995, hidden in the backside of a little strip of shops on 39th Street as it curves around St. Patrick's. It's open only for breakfast and lunch, and serves American as well as Latin sandwiches, salads, soups, snacks, and burgers, with mixed results. Two Express Breakfasts (most trade is take-out; there are a few inside and outside tables, but atmosphere, not to mention service, are nil) of empanadas or croquetas are both tasty: Beef empanadas are amply stuffed with nothing but ground meat (no veggies) but pleasantly spiced, while more unusual cheese empanadas are more sparsely stuffed with a mild white cheese that's like a cross between jack and string; both chicken and cheese croquetas have a satisfyingly smooth, custardy texture.
A recently ordered Hungry Street, on the other hand, sounded like a fabulous pork-loaded Latin take on the classic All American truck-stop burger special (ground beef patty, lettuce, tomato, cheese, bacon, ham, avocado, fried egg, pickles, and sauce), but was quite disappointing due to absence of avocado (unmentioned by staff upon ordering), burnt bacon, and, mainly, to a meat patty whose quality can only be described as hideous. Ordered rare, the binder-packed burger came cooked to roughly the texture of an ice hockey puck.
But what most people seem to favor are the hefty-sized hot Latin lunch specials, three each day -- though not necessarily the three listed on Ada's menu -- accompanied by two sides (though not the menu's choice of ten; three's more like it). Not all specials are winners. The "juicy strips of meat" in cazuela steak, for instance, are cardboard-dry. But some dishes are scrumptious, with superior spicing; the cook here really has a knack for stewed creations whose sauces attain an incredibly intense richness even when they're thin in texture.
Especially recommended are both chicken fricassee, tender poultry pieces in a sumptuous onion/pepper potion; oxtail in a peppered white wine sauce; boliche (a flavorful Dominican-style pot roast), and carne mechada ("old wear"), meat strips in wine sauce with onions and chilies. Try any of these with a side of savory red beans, accompanied by excellent Cuban coffee. But a warning: To score one of these sumptuous specials, it's best to arrive by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m.; Ada's is open till evening most days, but in its last two to three hours serves only sandwiches that are barely better than the nabe's bad bagels.